One of the great dangers of the lay movement since the 1950s, yes, even before Vatican II, was the enthusiasm in some quarters about reading the mystics and great theologians of the Church regarding spirituality. One reason I “unpacked” Garrigou-Lagrange on my old blog was to introduce the common sense and long-term journey to saintliness, as well as the introduction to the life of virtues which that Dominican so clearly places in perspective.
Many years ago, I had an excellent spiritual director who told me not to read beyond my level of grace. Good advice. Ms. Carswell in her book reiterates the same thing, using the term trying to “outstrip grace”. This warning involves a reality check. Years ago, a friend came to the conclusion that she should not be reading St. Teresa of Avila on prayer. Now, many years later, her confessor and spiritual director is encouraging her to do that. One must wait on God in order to grow in the spiritual life, not jumping ahead and anticipating what He is going to do, where He is going to lead someone.
No one should be reading the great classics without having, at least, read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or the Catechism of the Council of Trent, or some of the great encyclicals. Doctrine forms a basis for the understanding of the spiritual and mystical life.
SS. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila had grounding in Scholastic theology, and both read other authors, as well as being taught in formation in their monastery and convent. They both were approaching a deepening of their mystical life through prayer, but also from a basis of a sound understanding of Catholic doctrine.
Even the younger mystics, if not given infused knowledge of the things of God, had some catechesis. There has been a modern heresy of anti-intellectualism regarding pursuing the spiritual life first coming from the Protestants, and then encouraged by the Charismatics to the detriment of many Catholic’s spiritual life.
To study is part of the Lectio Divina of St. Benedict. The good and traditional Carmelites I know also study Church doctrine. To think that one can be without some basic knowledge and pursue a deep spiritual life may be based on a wrong idea that reason and faith do not grow together. All adult, and even adolescent Catholics, should be reading the great encyclicals, for example, several of which I “unpacked” on my old blog.
To think that God prefers an anti-intellectual faith comes from the false idea of simplicity. Yes, there are some saints who lived simple and not intellectual lives, but, not all by any stretch of the imagination.
Formation of the laity comes with the price of setting time aside for reading and studying, and not just the great mystical writers. One must begin with studying the Scriptures from a Catholic point of view.
To try and live in a spirituality which is not commensurate with the graces God is giving one creates a deceit in a person, a lie which causes that person to think he is holier than he actually is, because he is reading texts by holy people. One reason some people follow false seers too easily is that they lack a grounding in solid doctrine.
Ms. Carswell quotes Josef Goldbunner, who wrote a psychological study of holiness in the 1950s as to what happens when people become “dilettantes” in the faith.
The result of someone reading beyond their level of grace can result in “…insincerity, inhibitions, joylessness and the withering of the spiritual life; inner emptiness and sterility, self-disgust, restlessness, boredom, obsessions and scruples, leading sometimes to serious spiritual illnesses; depression, fear-neurosis, phobias and so on.”
Serious stuff. Which is why anyone who is desiring to grow in the faith must have a spiritual director, not merely a confessor. A confessor may or may not be one’s spiritual director. Sometimes, confessors simply do not have time for spiritual direction, and I firmly believe that the laity should not use confession for spiritual direction.
Those who want to grow closer to God need that outside input. I am so grateful for the excellent spiritual directors I have had in the past, most of my life, and for the one I have now.
But, I do have a simple rule for pursuing the spiritual, even mystical life. All of that movement of grace is based on love, not pride. The love of God for a person, and that person’s attempt to respond is what the spiritual life is all about–not rules, not books, but love.
And, with that love flows charity for one’s neighbor, in real, concrete ways.
As Ms. Carswell notes, some people play it safe in the spiritual life by immersing themselves in the great classics of the mystics, instead of allowing God to take them into the Dark Night, into the Darkness of pure faith, which is much more demanding than reading SS.Teresa of Avila or John of the Cross, for example.
And, the check for growth in the spiritual life is good works. Does my spiritual life inform good works? Does the grace of God in my life reach out to other people in real and direct ways?
Throwing money at people, such as in special collections, is also not the answer to charity’s plea for good works. That is merely expected of all of us.
Charity means involvement with other people. Here is St. James on this subject. He understood not getting beyond one’s level of grace. He understood that holiness and works grow together.
14 What shall it profit, my brethren, if a man say he hath faith, but hath not works? Shall faith be able to save him?
15 And if a brother or sister be naked, and want daily food:
16 And one of you say to them: Go in peace, be ye warmed and filled; yet give them not those things that are necessary for the body, what shall it profit?
17 So faith also, if it have not works, is dead in itself.
18 But some man will say: Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without works; and I will shew thee, by works, my faith.
19 Thou believest that there is one God. Thou dost well: the devils also believe and tremble.
20 But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?
21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, offering up Isaac his son upon the altar?
22 Seest thou, that faith did co-operate with his works; and by works faith was made perfect?
23 And the scripture was fulfilled, saying: Abraham believed God, and it was reputed to him to justice, and he was called the friend of God.
24 Do you see that by works a man is justified; and not by faith only?
25 And in like manner also Rahab the harlot, was not she justified by works, receiving the messengers, and sending them out another way?
26 For even as the body without the spirit is dead; so also faith without works is dead.
We cannot fall into the other extreme, of thinking that works will save us, as these do not alone. Together, the life of the soul, fed by prayer and the relationship with God, and the life of virtue, which includes good works, grow together.
Ms. Carswell refers to another book written in the 1950s, concerning the debate as to whether be a “transcedent” Christian or an “Incarnational” Christian. The debate had to do with what my professors in college noted as the “via affirmativa” and the “via negativa”, the way of understanding God as in affirming statements, or as in what we do not know about God. The Early Church Fathers wrote much on the via negativa, and this way of spirituality was popularized by the writer of The Cloud of the Unknowing, and by St. John of the Cross in his Dark Night of the Soul.
Rightly so, Ms. Carswell reading spiritual books can be harmful to a person pursuing God. This need may be partly a question of temperament, or where God has called a person in the world. For example, it is easy to see that contemplative vocations veer to the “via negativa”, whereas married life with children lead to a “via affirmativa.” Some artists claim their call is one of affirmation, and, indeed, as a writer myself, I engage in the world, not completely out of the world.
But, here is the problem. A person cannot choose to be a transcendent Catholic or an Incarnational Catholic, for one simple reason–God chooses.
Some of the severe problems of some communities, and I am referring to mostly traditional ones, is that some people try to form themselves into a role God has not called them to fulfill. And, there are gross misunderstandings even leading to prejudices about other Catholics because some people see salvation as through denial and suffering, while others through the affirmation of life.
For example, if one is married and has children, one must be in the world to a large extent, unless one happily finds a large enough and open enough community to deal with questions of various types of education, college, sport activities and so on. Those who value their children being involved in drama or band or sports, may be in conflict with those who do not see the value of such things. One cannot be a follower of the negative way and be raising children. One sees the value of, for example, a child being in a play, or learning the flute, or being in a choir.
However, some who only see the value of ignoring those activities, of moving away from all those “worldly” things, as they see these, criticize the others call. One cannot stand back and judge a person’s holiness if they are active, again, for example, in the fine arts. The Catholic Church has always valued the “Incarnational” activity of the artist, as we see in the beautiful Cathedrals of the world.
On the other hand, those active in the world, living out the Incarnational vocation, should not criticize those who have decided to remove themselves from the world. This type of negative way is usually followed by single people, or empty nesters, some choosing even Josephite marriages after child-bearing years are finished.
Now, Ms. Carswell’s concern is not like mine, the possible mutual misunderstanding of the two ways, but the fact that people read spiritual books and try to stuff themselves into a paradigm to which God has NOT called them.
Years and years ago, a friend of mine told me that she wanted a more contemplative life style but that her husband and family would not allow this. Of course! She chose in her marriage vows to follow a vocation in the world. I told her at the time that she would have time to follow that type of vocation, if her husband supported her, after the children were grown-up and gone. She then understood that she was trying to mold herself into a vocation to which God had not called her–yet.
On the other hand, some priests do not understand lay people who want to dedicate themselves to more contemplative prayer, seeing only the active life as a real lay call. It is not necessarily. A lay person can be a contemplative in the world. I know several and consider myself one.
Ms. Carswell’s wise advice, and I have extrapolated to show the context, is that people should not read spiritual books if they are not called to that type of prayer or vocation which is recommended in those books. To push a square peg into a round hole only damages the peg.
St. Augustine’s wise advice to come to know one’s self is key to following a type of spirituality. One can wish to be someone else, or have other tendencies and other limitations, but one cannot do that without injuring one’s own view of self, and insulting God, Who created each person for a specific reason and role in this world.
St. Catherine of Siena is not St. Theresa of Lisieux is not St. Rose of Lima is not St. Faustina.
St. John of the Cross is not St. Ignatius Loyola is not St. Maximilian Kolbe is not St. John Paul II.
And, so on…people are called to orders with different spiritualities because God has decided on their ways to him. The same is true for the laity.
So reading some books written by a particular saint or spiritual guide, such as Fathers Lehody or Lallemant, must either be read in a general way, as guides to the general way of prayer and holiness, but not as prescriptive ways.
I have come to realize that the failure of some Catholic communities in the United States are owing to too many people wanting to put square pegs into round holes, too many people seeing holiness in one light, judging those who do not fit “their” idea of what is it to be holy or how to be holy. To judge others by one’s own personal spirituality really is an impossible activity. One may help one’s brothers and sisters move away from false spirituality, such as New Age, or false seers, as noted on my old blog. But, one cannot judge, for example, a person who is pursuing holiness by affirming life, or one who is being an ascetic. Only that person and his spiritual director can determine the way.
But, sadly, in parishes, in communities, people do judge others’ spiritual ways, even what they are reading.
Reading certain books, or even other types of media and expecting all good Catholics who want to be perfect to agree or to follow a particular route of prayer or Mass attendance smacks of a tyranny of mind, which does not allow for God working in each person’s life in a unique manner.
One of the most dangerous things the laity can do is have study groups reading mystical writers together, as if all those members were called to that type of prayer and mysticism. Another friend of mine admitted that she was held back in her spiritual life for years and years because she was reading the mystics but not dealing with her own private moral life first, and being ignorant of the basic doctrines of the Church. She became so fixated on Carmelite spirituality, in this case, that she fell into greater sins for not concentrating on the simplicity of a daily examination of conscience or regular confession. In fact, some of the people in her Catholic study group were contracepting and believing that women priests were OK, while immersing themselves in the books of St. Teresa of Avila.
A real disjoint of reality…
But, the same disjoint can happen in moral people, in traditional Catholics, who assume that God must be calling them to a certain manner of spirituality.
On my old blog, I presented many types of prayer and spirituality in several long series, including the one on the Doctors of the Church, and the one called “Framing Prayer”. The reason for those series was partly to introduce different types of spirituality to the readers so that they could discover what type of prayer to which they are called.
Indiscriminately reading spirituality can hinder one’s own journey to perfection. Hence my warning and Ms. Carswell old warning.
This theme of many of my postings in the last ten days or so have been on being “real”, being one’s self, being true to one’s vocation. It takes a certain maturity to look at one’s limitations and realize that God calls us to a certain way within His Own Plan.
As those of you who have read my blog for years, even from 2007, the very first blog, know that I tried a late vocation with the Benedictines. God clearly showed me that this was not His way for me, to leave the world entirely, although I loved being in the Tyburn convents in England and Ireland. Here I am, writing away, out in the world, doing what God wanted me to do, be a contemplative in the world and write.
Those who do not see the value of such a call do not understand that God has a unique call for each one of us. There are no cookie-cutter saints, as I have written before….
Getting beyond grace happens when one does not really know who one is, and for some of us this takes a long time. And, in the seasons of our lives, we may move from being an Incarnational Catholic to a transcedent one, according to God’s plan. Many saints, including my loved Cunegunde, followed that route, of being in the world and then out of the world.
Reading beyond one’s level is an attempt to “outstrip grace”. Wanting to make others in one’s own image and likeness in the spiritual world is a form of tyranny of the soul. Such a lack of openess to the ways of God may indicate that one is not following the way God intended and that one has become a dilettante, as Ms. Carswell notes. A dilettante, I remind readers, is a person who had an interest without a commitment, or is an amateur. If one does not know one’s self in the spiritual light of God, one will fall into becoming only an amateur, and not a saint.
As I wrote many years ago, to be a saint is to be objective, to be able to stand outside of one’s self and see one’s sins and one’s gifts as if they belonged to another person, because, the gifts belong to God and the sins must be objectified in order to be confessed and forgiven. To objectify one’s sins is to be humble, reject them, repent and confess them. To objectify one’s gifts is to be humble is realizing all good things come from God alone.
to be continued…